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‘The Love Doctor’ spills her secrets: ‘Happy couples sweat the small stuff’

Dr. Terri Orbuch shares tips from her book, 5 Simple Steps to Take Your Marriage from Good to Great.

‘The Love Doctor’ spills her secrets: ‘Happy couples sweat the small stuff’

Dr. Terri Orbuch (PhD) a.k.a “The Love Doctor,” is a relationship expert, professor at Oakland University, director of a long-term NIH-funded study of marriage, and author of: 5 Simple Steps to Take Your Marriage from Good to Great. Her book covers important topics like myths about marriage, building on the foundation you already have, and how to add excitement back into your love life.


Motherly: Is there any one thing you’ve learned throughout your extensive research following the same 373 couples (for three decades) that sticks out most about love and commitment?

Dr. Terri Orbuch: Happy couples sweat the small stuff. That’s opposite from what we’ve learned in the media. A lot of couples sweep little annoyances and pet peeves under the rug. Over time though, these small everyday irritations can add up and become really big (and harder to unpack).

It’s actually the small, everyday irritations that can accumulate and tear couples apart, if not dealt with. The happy couples in my study bring up the annoyances in a constructive way.

Motherly: Your favorite thing you have learned?

Dr. Terri Orbuch: Contrary to popular wisdom, a fulfilling relationship doesn’t require years of hard work. It’s actually small consistent changes in behaviors and attitudes that create happiness over time in relationships.

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Motherly: I think we all go into a marriage planning on staying together forever. In your expert opinion, what is the secret ingredient to keep a marriage together for so long?

Dr. Terri Orbuch: I agree; I think we all go into a marriage planning on staying together forever. Over time what happens is that we put our relationship on “the back burner” as we attend to all the other things in our life (children, work, home tasks, family, volunteering, etc.). We forget to recognize and make sure that our relationship and partner are cared for and noticed!

The secret to keeping a marriage together is to: do small things often to make your partner feel special and noticed. 

In my study, couples who gave each other affective affirmation often (e.g., words or actions that show you care, notice and love partner) were the happiest over time.

Solution: Every day, say or do one thing to show you care/notice him/her (compliments, thank you, I love you, you’re the best father, kiss/hug, write a flirty note/text).

Motherly: Your book covers the five steps to take your marriage from good to great. What is the most crucial of the five steps?

Dr. Terri Orbuch: All five steps are important. They are all about the small changes you can make in your relationship, to take it from so-so or good to great.

But Step #1 is crucial. The main reason relationships break up isn’t conflict, lack of communication, or sexual incompatibility. Rather, it’s frustration! That is, the day-to-day disappointment or the gap between what you expect to happen in your relationship and what really happens in your relationship. We all walk around with these “should statements” (e.g., my partner should always be there for me, perfect relationships don’t have conflict, we should share all money), and when our relationship realities don’t match those should statements, we feel frustration and disappointment. And frustration eats away at the happiness in a relationship.

Solution: Get real with your expectations.

Identify your own expectations for a happy relationship and know your partner’s expectations. By practicing the “10-minute rule” (discussed in my book!) you’ll become more familiar with each other’s inner worlds and strengthen the bond of happiness between the two of you.

Motherly: Do you believe marriage should be 50/50 all the time?

Dr. Terri Orbuch: Relationships can’t be 50/50 all the time, because relationships go through ebbs and flows. Ups and downs. Relationships also are all about equity, rather than equality. Equity is all about fairness – what do we both think is fair in our relationship. And fairness (or equity) differs for couples. What is fair for one couple (50/50), is not fair for another couple (you do 75%, I do 25%).

Motherly: What is something simple we could do today to put some excitement back into our marriages?

Dr. Terri Orbuch: When a relationship begins, two people share many new activities as they get to know each other and experience is exciting. But over the years, couples begin to worry about paying bills, providing security and raising children. They forget that relationships also have to be about fun and laughter.

One simple thing that you can do to add back some excitement and fun back into the marriage: Engage in new activities together.

Doing novel activities with your partner enables you both to re-experience that original excitement when you were dating. Go deep-sea fishing, learn to ski for the first time, or sign up for a salsa dance class together. Any unique novel experience that you share together will spice up your love life.

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    Flexible schedules mean more vacation options. 🙌

    Looking back now, last winter feels like a lifetime ago. At the time, my husband and I were eagerly planning our summer vacation just as we've done in years past. You know how the next part goes: COVID-19 came into the picture and changed our plans not only for vacationing, but for so much else in life.

    In the time since then, we've gained a truly valuable new perspective on what matters—and realized we don't have to look so far to make beautiful memories with our kids. By exploring getaways within driving distance of our home, we've developed a new appreciation for the ability to "pack up the car and go."

    Of course, that isn't to say that travel is the carefree adventure it once was. With COVID-19 still a very big part of the equation, we've become much more diligent about planning trips that allow for social distancing and exceed cleanliness standards. That's why we've exclusively turned to Vrbo, which helps us find nearby accommodations that meet our new criteria. Better yet?

    Thanks to the money we've saved by skipping air travel and our remote-friendly work schedules, we're able to continue with the trips throughout the fall.

    Here are a few more reasons we believe it's a great time for drivable getaways.

    Flexible schedules allow us to mix work + play.

    After months of lockdown, my family was definitely itching for a change of scenery as the summer began. By looking at drivable destinations with a fresh set of eyes—and some helpful accommodation-finding filters on Vrbo—we were able to find private houses that meet our needs. (Like comfortably fitting our family of five without anyone having to sleep on a pull-out couch!)

    With space to spread out and feel like a home away from home, we quickly realized that we didn't need to limit our getaways to the weekends—instead we could take a "Flexcation," a trip that allows us to mix work and play. Thanks to the ability to work remotely and our kids' distance-learning schedule for the fall, we're planning a mid-week trip next month that will allow us to explore a new destination after clocking out for the day.

    We’re embracing off-season deals.

    With Labor Day no longer marking the end of our vacationing season, we're able to take advantage of nearby getaways that mark down their rates during the off season. For us in the Mountain West, that means visiting ski-town destinations when the leaves are falling rather than the snow. By saving money on that front, we're able to splurge a bit with our accommodations—so you can bet I search for houses that include a private hot tub for soaking in while enjoying the mountain views!

    Vacationing is a way to give back.

    If we've learned one thing this year, it's that life can change pretty quickly. That's given us a new appreciation for generous cancellation policies and transparent cleaning guidelines when booking trips. By seeing both of these things front and center in Vrbo listings along with reviews from fellow travelers, I feel confident when I hit the "book now" button.

    Beyond that, I know that booking a trip through Vrbo isn't only a gift to my family. On the other side of the transaction, there are vacation home owners and property managers who appreciate the income during these uncertain times. What's more, taking getaways allows us to support our local economy—even if it's just by ordering new takeout food to enjoy from our home away from home.

    While "looking ahead" doesn't feel as easy as it once did, I am confident that there will be a lot of drivable getaways in our future.

    This article was sponsored by Vrbo. Thank you for supporting the brands that support Motherly and mamas.

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